Kentucky Penguin’s Cancer Case A First

The honking, cooing and growling echoed from the back room of the penguin exhibit at the Newport Aquarium late Friday morning.Tica, a 2-foot tall, 8-pound male chinstrap penguin, stood on the rock nest with his mate of 11 years, a female named Spike. Their wings flapped. Tica puffed out his white chest. They extended their long necks and moved closer in a dance typical of mating season. Standing a few feet away, Ric Urban nodded his approval. Tica’s behavior was a good sign, said Urban, the aquarium’s curator of birds and mammals. Tica had just been returned to the aquarium, via a cold trailer donated by the Home City Ice Co., from his fifth radiation treatment of the week. At 8 in the morning, much to Spike’s vocal and physical opposition – she has sharp teeth and a strong bite – trainers loaded Tica into a pet carrier and placed him into the trailer, kept between 30 and 40 degrees, for the drive to Cincinnati Animal Referral & Emergency (CARE) Center in Blue Ash. There, veterinarians sedated Tica and performed a 20-minute radiation treatment on a cancerous area on his tail. • Photos: Penguin gets treatment Tica’s is the first known case of penguin cancer being aggressively treated, and medical staffs at zoos and aquariums nationwide are watching closely, said Urban. “We’re not alone on an island,” he said. “This is being talked about.” Trainers at the Newport Aquarium noticed an abscess on Tica’s tail, in the preen gland, in September. The gland produces a water-proofing substance for penguins that they apply to their feathers. The infected area was removed a couple of times but would not heal. A biopsy revealed squamous cell carcinoma – skin cancer. Earlier cases of penguin cancer were treated with removal of the gland, Urban said, but many of those penguins were older, closer to the species’ 28-year lifespan. Tica is only 16 years old, “in the prime of his life,” Urban said. “He has produced six viable offspring and can continue to produce.” He talked to veterinarians at the CARE Center, who had treated as many as 100 dogs and cats, and even a ferret and rabbit or two, with as many as 1,500 total treatments, but never a penguin or any other wild animal. The challenge for vets is to focus enough radiation on the tumor site while minimizing radiation exposure to other tissues. “It’s an irregularly shaped body,” said Daniel Carey, a veterinarian and medical director at the CARE Center. “It’s not as much weight-dependent as it is geometrical.” Tica is sedated and kept cold in a thermal sleeve during the treatment. “We’re animal people,” Carey said. “It’s cool to treat a penguin. We think we can do something important for the medical field and help this guy out.” Tica is showing no ill effects from the radiation. He is showing interest in mating. Penguins at Newport Aquarium are indigenous to Antarctica, the continent centered on the South Pole. Subtle lighting changes in the exhibit, as well as the penguins’ seasonal diet, keep them on that cycle. The exhibit is a slice of the southern hemisphere that’s north of the equator. Firsts are nothing new to Tica. He is the first chinstrap penguin – known for the black line under the neck – hatched in the United States to live to adulthood. Born in the Central Park Zoo in New York, Tica and his father, Porkey, are both at Newport. Tica arrived Nov. 20, 2008. The name Tica comes from the scientific name for chinstrap penguins, Pygoscelis Antarctica – which his trainer thought appropriate for the penguin. He also appears to be the first penguin getting better because of radiation treatment, which started on Nov. 17 and is expected to conclude Friday, Dec. 11. “There are some really nice developments in healing,” Urban said. “He is showing some scabbing and growth of scar tissue.” Tice has not lost weight. His appetite is good; he prefers capelin. Tica continues to swim in the exhibit and should be out there today at the aquarium. In fact, after lunch on Friday, trainers – placing their hands under the penguins’ wings in the back room – moved Spike and Tica into the exhibit, where Tica immediately jumped into the water for a swim. Spike had nothing to do with the water. She waddled back to her nest to wait for Tica.

Tica with his buddy Spike

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